Android O is shaping up to be exactly what Android needs

Today’s Google I/O presentation was as wide-ranging as the company’s various ventures into future technology, though the biggest cheers of excitement were inevitably reserved for Android. I just got my first taste of Google’s next iteration, codenamed Android O, and it looks like it’s targeting exactly the areas where Google’s mobile OS needed improvement.

Battery life, a thing that matters to all users at all times, is getting a nice helping hand from a couple of changes that limit resource consumption by apps running in the background. When a background app wants a location update, for instance, Android O will feed it the user’s last known location instead of activating the GPS or other hardware to collect a fresh location. Then, when the app is in the foreground, it regains its privilege of being able to poll for current location info. If you’re thinking that’s how it always should have been, I totally agree.

Google’s umbrella term for the unsexy but essential under-the-hood improvements in Android O is “vitals.” My other highlight from among them is the massively improved bootup time: my personal Google Pixel took more than twice as long to start up than Google’s demo Pixel running O. I also find Android O runs very fast and smooth already, despite being only beta software. Naturally, not everything works flawlessly in the new OS yet, so I can’t judge how well Google is doing with its other vital bulletpoint, stability, but the first impression I’ve obtained is a positive one.

The more visible changes include a streamlined Settings menu (when has a Settings menu not looked in need of streamlining?), another gradual update to how notifications work, and new app badging à la the iPhone. Google calls these notification dots, and it adds a nice twist to the idea by automatically color-matching the dots to the app icon. A long press on an app with a notification dot on it lets you access a secondary menu where you can swipe that alert away without having to hunt it down in among your agglomeration of notifications in the tray.

Perhaps the biggest small change in Android O is the addition of picture-in-picture functionality. It allows YouTube Red subscribers to punt a video they’re watching to a small window — positionable anywhere on the screen — and carry on using their phone as usual. The Google Duo video-chatting app also supports this behaviour, but those two apps are the full extent of this functionality for now. I’d really love to see this made available to all YouTube users, and once third-party app makers like Netflix jump on board, it’s likely to grow into a popular feature.

Android O is littered with little nips and tucks that just enhance the user experience without necessarily being visible or apparent. At this stage in Android’s evolution, this approach feels like the best one to take, and I suspect we’ll all be just as aggrieved about not having the Android O update on our non-Google phones as we have in previous years of slow Android upgrades.*

*Google claims it’s made some other changes in the OS that will make Android more modular and thus expedite Android updates, but I’ll believe that when I see it, not before.

Google Photos for iOS gets Mother’s Day movie feature, three days after Mother’s Day

Google hosted its I/O developer’s conference today during which it announced additional features for its Photos app, virtual assistant, and Android O. A lot of these things were cool, but what was most befuddling throughout the event was the company’s continued focus on Mother’s Day. Does Google know when Mother’s Day is? Today, the company rolled out an update to its iOS Photos app that specifically highlights a Mother’s Day movie-making feature. See here:

As a reminder, Mother’s Day was this past Sunday, May 14th. To be fair to Google, this movie-making feature debuted before the holiday, but at the time, videos could only be compiled from the desktop app and then subsequently edited through the app. Now they can be made on the app. Still, this is hyper-specific UI for a holiday that comes around once a year.

I wouldn’t have thought much of this strange holiday update timing, but after the company brought Mother’s Day up twice during I/O demos, I really got to wondering what the deal is with Google and the holiday. During a demo of Google Home phone calls, Rishi Chandra, VP of home products, suggests that if he forgot to call his mom on Mother’s Day, he could do so hands-free from the stage. Chandra’s mom reminds him that Mother’s Day was three days ago to which he says he missed it because of event rehearsal. Alright.

Then later in the event, Google shows how its Photos app can be used to make a Mother’s Day gift in the form of a physical photo album. Again, Mother’s Day was on Sunday; why are we still talking about it? Maybe this is all a testament to the power of mom guilt.

Saying ‘OK Google’ is awful, but Google may be open to changing it

Here’s a 1 percenter problem: I have both an Amazon Echo and a Google Home in our apartment, and so I could theoretically use whichever one is better. In a lot of ways, I think the Google Home is better: it sounds nicer, it works with my television, and it knows a lot of personal information that I haven’t bothered to try to make available on Amazon’s Alexa.

But I usually just go with Alexa, because “Alexa” is way easier to say than “OK Google.”

Rishi Chandra, VP for Google Home, tells me he’s heard that feedback. In fact, feedback along those lines is one of the reasons that you can say “Hey Google” instead of “OK Google” to activate the Google Home. But is Google open to adding another, easier-to-say hot word to its Assistant?


Here’s the story: Google decided not to give its intelligent assistant a name like Siri or Alexa or Cortana or whatever. Instead, it’s just the Google Assistant. There are nice things about that name: it’s genderless, it tells you what the thing is, and for Google, it signals that it’s a core product for the future of the company.

All of which makes Google “cautious” about throwing another hot word into the mix, according to Chandra. Because that new hot word might end up becoming what people call its assistant. Chandra is clear that Google isn’t religious about never adding another one, and it is listening to feedback from people like me who end up nearly swallowing their tongues when they try to say “OK Google” for the fifth time in a row. But he doesn’t want to make any quick changes without fully thinking through those implications.

As I wrote earlier today, a cautious approach to how to turn AI into consumer interfaces is kind of Google’s new thing, and in that context I don’t hate the decision to think through hot words really carefully. I just hate saying “OK Google.”

The first trailer for Star Trek: Discovery is packed with action and shiny CGI

CBS debuted a full trailer for Star Trek: Discovery today, showing off a clip stuffed with plenty of Federation action, spaceships, and a ton of new characters, in a story set a decade before Captain Kirk and Spock ventured out in the Enterprise.

The trailer opens with Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou and Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham walking across a desert planet. There, Georgiou tells Burnham that it’s time for her first command, and we jump to scenes on the bridge of the Discovery. Over the course of the next two minutes, the ship engages the Klingons, the new cast blurs by, tensions rise, and the character interactions hint at a number of plot threads involving the Federation’s current place in the universe. This show looks as though it has a far more militant Starfleet than the optimistic-explorer group in the original 1966 show.

CBS first announced Discovery in 2015, and revealed a teaser during last year’s San Diego Comic-Con. The show has since run into considerable problems: while it was supposed to begin airing in January 2017, it was pushed back to May, and delayed again earlier this year. Last fall, the show also lost its showrunner, Bryan Fuller, due to his workload, which includes Starz’s American Gods. With this new trailer, the show does seem to be back on track. Deadline notes that the show’s sixth episode is currently being shot, and that the order for the season has been upped from 13 episodes to 15. CBS also announced that it’s greenlit a companion talk show, Talking Trek.

Unfortunately, the trailer doesn’t offer a firm release date: the show is just coming “this fall.” Fortunately, there’s so much going on in this quick initial look that the trailer-analyzer brigade will probably still be combing through it frame by frame when fall rolls around. For those who live in the UK and Ireland, Netflix released a international version of the trailer you can watch here. Just note that it’s region locked for US viewers.

Period-tracking app Clue will tell women what to do if they miss a birth control pill

Clue helps women keep track of their menstrual cycle by allowing them to input information about when they have their period, how they’re feeling when they have it, their sexual activity, flow, and other notes. The idea is that with this detailed log, Clue can offer women a more thorough look at their fertility and how their period affects day-to-day life. Today, the company is building new functionality into its app that’s meant to help women understand how their birth control pill impacts their cycle. “Smart Pill Tracking,” as the company calls it, asks women to tell the app whether they took their pill that day, or more specifically, whether it was taken late, completely missed, or doubled because they had previously skipped a day.

Maybe more importantly, though, the app can also explain how pill dosages impact fertility. If you miss a pill, for example, there’s an increased chance of pregnancy. If they opt-in, users have to tell the app every day whether they took their pill, and if they don’t mark “taken,” it’ll offer instructions on what to do. (If it’s been less than three hours, the pill should be taken immediately and will still be effective, for instance.)

  Image: Clue

The app includes an alarm to remind users to take the pill, which is helpful but not foolproof. Sometimes doses are missed not because someone forgot to take the pill but because she doesn’t have her pill pack with her, or her prescription ran out and needs to be refilled. The information Clue provides likely isn’t any more helpful than a WebMD page, but it at least puts everything in front of a woman’s face so she doesn’t have to go out of her way to figure out what to do.

Google is finally replacing its bad emoji blobs in Android O

Personally, I’ve always found one of the worst aspects of using a Nexus or Pixel smartphone to be getting stuck with Google’s bad, default emoji. Emoji intended to represent people look more like thumbs. Or, in the words of The Verge’s Megan Farokhmanesh, they resemble “normal emoji that melted.” Or Dots candy or something. I feel a slight anxiety when l include what should be a fun, cheerful emoji in my texts to friends who have iPhones or Samsung phones. which display more regular emoji. What will it look like to them? Must I pull up some chart to see?

Google finally got the message that these emoji suck. Okay, “suck” is a little harsh. I’m sure some of you like them. But they’ve always been a little too offbeat when other phone makers offer emoji that mostly look similar. Google tried to tone things down a little and restore normalcy with Android N, but it wasn’t enough. So this time the company decided to start over and make things right for Android O.

The new “mind blown” emoji reflects my excitement over these changes.

Fast Company has a behind-the-scenes look at the redesign process, which apparently took 18 months. Somehow this revelation went unmentioned on stage, where it was only briefly stated that you’ll be able to download your own emoji sets and custom fonts in O. So if you don’t like these, hopefully you’ll be able to switch back rather easily. But the emoji seen above are the new system default.

You can get the new emoji yourself if you install the beta release of Android O. Do you dislike the blobs enough to put up with random beta bugs? I just might. If not, you’ll get them when the OS update is officially released later this summer.

Goodbye and good riddance.

The new Android TV home screen has the right ideas, but it’s probably not enough

I just spent some time with a small, early demo of the new home screen experience for Android O on TV. Even though it’s not fully working yet — some of the apps don’t open, and the Google Assistant isn’t running on it — it has a nicer TV UI than the other television devices I use every day.

Those TV devices: Apple TV and Chromecast. The latter, while convenient, has no on-screen UI at all, which is a problem if you’re trying to pick a show with somebody else. The Apple TV is, well, it’s a big, boring grid of apps, only a few of which actually surface any kind of deep content on the home screen (and only if you happen to put them in the top row).

Android TV is more like Fire TV and the Xbox: each app is able to create a “channel,” which displays important content right on the home screen. You scroll vertically through your favorite app channels, then left to right to get live previews. It will also work with live television apps.

There’s obviously a big old app grid if you want that, and a row of your favorite apps up at the top. You’ll be able to use Google Assistant to search for shows or even ask contextual questions. We got to do a small test of that on another TV device running Android Marshmallow, and it worked pretty well as far as the demo goes. It successfully showed the weather, and ably brought us information about Stranger Things.

There’s also a “Watch Now” queue, which will theoretically have the next episode of recent shows you’ve been watching and movies you’ve quit halfway through. It’s like a “keep watching” list on Netflix. But it’s also like a proper Netflix queue, because you can save any show or episode to it by long-pressing on its icon.

That’s not all that far off from what Apple is trying to do with its TV app, but on Android TV it’s built right into the home screen. That may sound like Android has figured out a way to do what Apple couldn’t — but the whole story is obviously more complicated.

Complication number one: app makers can choose whether or not to participate in the Watch Now section of Android TV, just like they can choose whether or not to participate in Apple’s Siri search and its TV app. Content companies have proven to be remarkably reticent to allow their content to be listed in places other than their app.

The only way to really get those apps into something like the Watch Now queue is probably leverage: sell millions upon millions of devices and prove that the feature is so popular that you’d be crazy to lock your content out of it. And that is really the second complication: Android TV was such a flop for the first few years of its existence that it’s been difficult for it to climb back. There’s simply not going to be a big enough install base for Google to gain that leverage.

So Android O on TVs: looks good, fairly promising, but probably not enough to make you want to switch to it. Turns out it’s easier to make a demo of a better TV interface than it is to actually make it a real thing customers use. It should be available alongside Android O for phones later this year.

Google for Jobs aims to make job searching less of a hassle

A lot of people turn to search engines when they’re looking for work, so today the world’s biggest search engine announced Google for Jobs. The project aims to leverage Google’s advanced machine learning capabilities, sorting through millions of job listings to better match opportunities with candidates.

Right now Google isn’t planning to start hosting its own job listings. It is collecting them from third parties like Facebook, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Monster, and ZipRecruiter. It then filters jobs for criteria like the length of the commute, and tries to bundle together openings for similar jobs that might be listed under different names. A couple of big companies, including FedEx and Johnson & Johnson, have been piloting the program, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai says they saw an 18 percent increase in applications over their previous methods.

It’s not clear if Google is dipping its toe into this market before launching a competitor to job search engines like Indeed. Right now, after a user clicks on the job they want, Google sends them to another service to apply. According to Bloomberg, Indeed generated over $300 million in revenue in the first half of 2015, and IBIS World estimates the total market to be around $4 billion annually, so there is certainly an attractive opportunity for Google if they want to take on incumbents. The product is rolling out in the US in the next few weeks.

You can now earn free Delta miles from Lyft rides

Some people earn miles using their credit cards, others do it by actually flying somewhere. Today, Delta has added Lyft to its rewards program so you can accumulate miles from a service you might use more regularly — at least, more regularly than air travel.

To earn frequent flyer miles, Lyft users can link their account to Delta’s SkyMiles program from a dedicated website. The system works a lot like a credit card program: you earn one mile for every dollar spent on Lyft. At launch, Lyft is offering three miles per dollar for rides to and from airports.

Lyft isn’t the first ride-sharing app to implement a frequent flyer partnership model; Uber has a similar program with Starwood Preferred Guest which lets users earn points to use when booking SPG hotels, which includes the Marriott, Sheraton, Ritz-Carlton, Westin, and more. Uber also partnered with United Airlines and American Airlines to prompt users to book an Uber when their flight lands.

Android Instant Apps are now available to all developers

After a year of incubation, Android Instant Apps are finally ready for the world. Originally announced at last year’s Google I/O, Instant Apps are a way for developers to offer a lightweight version of their Android app without requiring a visit to the Play Store. You just click a link in your web browser and all of a sudden you’re using a real Android app, with all the power that implies — other than a few safety restrictions. A few Instant Apps were made available in January as a trial run, and a few other companies have partnered with Google to build instant apps since then, but now at this year’s Google I/O the necessary tools have been made available to all developers.

To make an app Instant, developers need to make it modular and compatible with deep links, so users can click on a URL and end up in exactly the part of the app they’re looking to use. The initial download also needs to be under a certain size, but users also have the option to download the whole app once they’ve gotten a taste.

Instant Apps were originally supposed to run on versions of Android as far back as 4.3, but right now they only support 6.0 or newer — though 5.0 support is supposed to be coming soon. The upcoming Android O will add additional improvements to Instant Apps, including the ability to search for and launch Instant Apps from the launcher, as well as add them to your home screen.